A Review of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

June 10, 2019
< 5 Minutes

Stephen Rhyne


How do you know if you’re conveying the message that you’re intending to convey? To put it another way: Whether you train or sell, lecture or facilitate dialogue, how can you be sure that those who are learning from you are actually learning?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have endless time and limitless resources to continually have my information fall on deaf ears.

But like me, you probably share the conviction that when information is conveyed properly, people have more “buy in” to your business and cause. So what if there’s a way to ensure that those who hear you, gain and retain information?

These questions are what drove me to read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. As a founder of a training and micro-learning platform (ConveYour), my company specializes in being sure that learners acquire what their teachers desire. So I embarked on a journey to discover how people learn in order to make sure that ConveYour is in tune with what modern science says.

Make it Stick - Confused Employee
I did this because after years in sales and marketing, I found that there is a lot of information that is lost in transmission. How come?

Make It Stick, answers that question (along with many others) by delving into the cognitive and neurological aspects of learning. The writers, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, are scientists with over a decade of research under their belts. They describe studies and prescribe methods with the help of storyteller Peter Brown. They inform us in the preface of the book that they are writing “for trainers in business, industry, and the military”. This is applicable for professional leaders, coaches, trainers, but also for anyone who is, as they put it, “nearing middle age or older who want to hone their skills so as to stay in the game.” Hey, that sounds like me? Does it sound like you?

Make it Stick - Book Cover
“People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways.”

Without trying to rewrite their book here, I’ll simply speak to what I found compelling…and maybe what I have gathered helps you along the way. So what is their Big Idea? Right off the bat, in the preface of the book, they argue that “People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways.” Then, in the first chapter, a bold claim is made: “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.” The entire book hinges on this concept, and the writers inform us that the empirical evidence is clear: tools should be implemented in order to embed information into memory to “make it stick”.

Make it Stick - Woman striving to pull herself up
“Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”

One such tool is pointed out in Chapter 2. The authors refer to a study that was done in 1917, in which children briefly studied short biographies. Some students were told to re-read the material and others were told to recite the information while looking away from their material. Those students who recited showed better retention after being quizzed 3 to 4 hours later. This act of forcing retrieval through recitation was more effective than re-reading. But this act of retrieval is only one tool. Could you imagine building a house with just one tool? No matter how effective a carpenter’s hammer is, he still needs a saw, a square, a drill, a level, a …get the point?

Make it Stick - person hammering on a work horse
"Could you imagine building a house with just one tool?"

So what other tools are there? While I don’t have the space to list them all (and because I think you should read the book for yourself to glean something I may have missed, or misinterpreted), here’s a list of a few other tools: mixed practice, reflection, and elaboration.

Mixed practice is when one uses different methods of retrieval. I thought of how physical trainers talk about muscle confusion. When you change up how you are exercising, the muscle doesn’t grow accustom to the same routine, thus it works harder and, as a result, the muscle is built. Likewise, when practice is switched, one must concentrate with more focus to retrieve the information. This builds stronger connections in the brain (which is talked about in Chapter 7 and compared to Kit Carson’s journey across the U.S.). As well, the learner is reflecting more on the material. The more time one dwells on a topic, the more one retains. This lays the ground work for the learner to define and conceptualize the information in her own words, which is known as elaboration.

Make it Stick - a trainer spotting an exercising woman
"When you change up how you are exercising, the muscle doesn’t grow accustom to the same routine, thus it works harder and, as a result, the muscle is built."

Now one thing to consider is that these are merely tools. To use the earlier analogy of building, a carpenter is not a carpenter because he has tools. He is a carpenter because he uses tools to construct something. For a learner, the process of constructing is quizzing. This process should be difficult, but not overwhelming so as to discourage (a concept that is developed in Chapter 4, Embracing Difficulties). Extensive examples are given throughout the book on quizzing. As a developer of training through micro-learning, I found the most compelling thought to be the one expressed by Dr. Douglas Larsen, a pediatric neurologist at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. When discussing how training is focused around the classroom lecture that utilizes PowerPoint (not that anyone is knocking Microsoft), Dr. Larsen says, “Considering how much forgetting occurs, it’s very discouraging that we’re putting so many resources into an activity that, the way it is currently done…is so ineffective.” Like re-reading, the lecture style seems to be a prominent way that our culture teaches. Yet research proves it to be “ineffective.” But Larsen offers a solution, “Make quizzing a standard part of the culture and the curriculum.”

Make it Stick - a person lost behind a stack of books
"Like re-reading, the lecture style seems to be a prominent way that our culture teaches."

It is at this point that I must resign my write up. I am concerned that I am being long winded; and frankly, the book is full of much better storytelling and illustrations than I have the capacity to provide you with. So let me summarize. I found Make It Stick to be helpful and insightful, but most importantly, relevant and rooted in research. I am encouraged because I found that my company is following the methods prescribed by the science, and where we fall short, I see a clear and direct path toward which to advance. How we have done this is specifically through the process of quizzing. We provide a platform that enables trainers to utilize their own content to engage their learners through quizzing which forces retrieval, mixes up practice, leads to reflection, and helps to elaborate. Based on the empirical evidence listed in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, when students have this proven process and these tested tools, one can be sure that his message is conveyed and received.

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